From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
My first impressions were less than enthusiastic about The Club at River Oaks in Sherman, Conn., an early 2000s design by architect Robert McNeil about an hour north of Danbury in the densely forested, heavily ledge-rocked northwest portion of the state. But first impressions can be wrong.
A few holes into my round, I had concluded that McNeil wasn't given enough room on which to design an 18-hole golf course. The practice range was wedged in a hollow between two wetlands and was too short to hit driver. The second fairway seemed too close to the 17th green, and the second green was only a pitching wedge’s distance away from the third tees, the sixth green, seventh tees and 16th green. The elevated third green was positioned so close to high tension power lines overhead that I could hear the wires sizzle and crackle.
My next impression was that McNeil got hammered by environmental regulators. He seemed to be restricted in his shaping of holes along the Housatonic River. The 207-yard 10th along its bank is the most graphic example. After a front nine where big, beefy mounds frame every fairway and green, the absolutely flat and almost featureless riverside 10th seemed like it belonged on some other course.
I had more negative thoughts after I reached the 210-yard 17th, a beautiful par 3 over a pond from tee boxes right next to a road. After hitting to the green, I had to reach it by following a path around the pond, then had to retrace my steps back to the very same tee boxes to hit down the 18th fairway. Both holes play from the same tee! I wondered if McNeil had experienced every golf architect's worst nightmare by discovering he'd laid out just 17 holes and had to rush around to find room for one more hole. Although I knew this couldn't possibly be true, the thought stuck with me.
A few weeks after my round, I called McNeil, whom I'd not yet met in person, and told him my impression was that River Oaks was a tough, tough site on which to build a golf course.
You don't know the half of it, he replied.
The site, McNeil explained, had been originally platted solely as a residential development a dozen years before. After the streets, electrical and other utilities had been installed, the developers when bankrupt. When McNeil was hired, the new owner instructed him to fit in an 18-hole golf course around all the existing streets, laying out fairways and greens on what had been platted as homesites. He wasn't allowed to tear up or relocate any paved road, and he was instructed to save as many homesites as possible.
That explains a great deal, from the tiny driving range to the proximity of several holes to one another to the power lines above the third green and even the awkward situation of the 17th and 18th. Looking at a topographical map of the course that McNeil sent to me, I found it amazing that he found room to even fit in a regulation 18-hole course. In fact, several fairways, like the par-4 fifth and long par-4 13th, run right across platted home lot lines.
Turns out those are still platted home sites. In order to comply with the two-acre minimum lot size requirement of the town of Sherman, and still fit in 18 holes, the home lots along many holes actually extend into the fairways, with the golf course portion being designated as "conservation easements" on the title. McNeil didn't know whether the club or landowner pays the property taxes on each little share of fairway owned by each homeowner.
State environmental regulators didn't give him a hard time, McNeil said, but city regulators did. He attended no less than 50 separate public hearings before the city commission gave its approval to build the course. In most cases, the city imposed tougher regulations than the state. For instance, McNeil had intended the 10th to be a par 4 along the river bank, but the city wouldn't allow him to bring or remove any dirt in that location, or touch any dirt between tee and green, so he shortened the hole to the present flat, nearly featureless par 3.
The Club of River Oaks is not a great golf course, but it's not a bad golf course, either, which was my first impression. I now think of it as a Rocky Road golf course. That best reflects both its rugged terrain and the odds-defying nature of its existence.